Wednesday night’s 3D hockey experiment at the Garden was touted as a historic moment in sports TV history, and it might well have been.
Time will tell whether the technology evolves the way HDTV has in the 12 years since MSG pioneered that feature when it began telecasting Knicks and Rangers home games in high def, in a time when few actually had HD-compatible sets.
For now it was cool just to be a part of it, the way it presumably was for the handful of journalists 71 years ago who gathered at RCA headquarters (and the World’s Fair in Queens) to observe the first televised baseball game.
Plus I got to rub elbows with (or at least observe from afar) an eclectic cast of VIPs that included Mark Messier, Mike Richter, Adam Graves, Nick Fotiu, Ron Greschner, Ron Duguay, David Lee, Wilson Chandler, Kevin Boss, Shaun O’Hara, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Criss of Kiss (sans makeup), three SI swimsuit models, seven Ford models and the actors who play Cerie (Katrina Bowden), Grizz (Grizz Chapman) and Dot Com (Kevin Brown) on “30 Rock,” the funniest show on television.
Then there were the hockey heavy hitters, including NHL commish Gary Bettman, Islanders owner Charles Wang, MSG chairman James Dolan and other high-ranking Garden officials.
About 2,600 people filled the available seats at the Theater, a mixture of paying customers and guests of the Garden.
The atmosphere in the Theater, where fans heard from famous Rangers of the past and watched the special 3D production featuring Kenny Albert on play-by-play and Dave Maloney with analysis, was celebratory. But unfortunately the picture itself suffered somewhat on a screen 32 feet wide and 18 feet high.
To fully appreciate the potential of the 3D image, one had to watch on the televisions set up in a VIP lounge near the Theater. There the images were far sharper and the 3D effect more pronounced.
(I observed the same phenomenon in December of 2008 when I attended an experimental showing of a live NFL game that featured a so-so theater experience and an excellent TV image.)
Of course, the quality of the TV image is the one that matters more moving forward, because the point of all this is to provide programming for the 3D-compatible sets that went on the market only within the past few months.
That was the real history-making element of Wednesday’s event. It was the first live sports telecast sent directly into homes, however many of them are out there within the New York market and who get their TV service through Cablevision. (Cablevision owns Newsday.)
What those early adopters saw from the six cameras used in the commercial-free production was what everyone in the 3D game knows: For maximum effect, cameras must be located as close to ground level as possible to provide the depth of field that makes 3D pop.
The two cameras in the corners were at ice level and provided stunning images of players ramming into the boards and looking as if they would land in the audience’s laps.
But the effect was less dramatic from the two cameras at the blue lines and the one at center ice, which shot at a lower angle than traditional TV shots but still a few feet above ground level.
On those shots, the most jarring images often were those of fans – or, most scary of all, cotton candy vendors – who appeared in the foreground.
(From a traditional high press box angle, the 3D effect is almost entirely washed away.)
Hockey presents unique challenges because of the boards, the glass and the vertical metal posts that secure the glass. In football, baseball and basketball, cameras can get unobstructed access to the action.
It was the vertical posts that most frustrated Steve Schklair, the CEO of 3ality Digital. But he noted part of the point of the event was to experiment with hockey and learn the best ways to shoot the sport.
The biggest challenge moving forward in 3D sports programming will be to integrate the coolness of ground-level shots with the traditional, higher angles that allow fans to better follow what is going on in the game and where the ball or puck is headed.
In the end 3D might prove most useful for replays or alternate angles.
Schklair called it the “million dollar question.’’
“It will all slowly resolve itself as more and more 3D games hit the market, but the story is always more important than the ‘wow’ shot,’’ he said. “You can’t compromise that. If it’s not conveying the primary story of the game, it’s useless . . . Every shot doesn’t need to be a ‘wow’ shot. The high shots are part of the story.’’
Wang was impressed, even though I spoke to him after the first period, when his team trailed, 3-0.
“It’s beautiful,’’ he said. “When you see people flinch when the puck comes, it’s a great sign . . . The game is much clearer and because it’s 3D I think hockey can probably use it better than any other sport. You see them coming toward you. It’s beautiful.’’
Said Bettman: “It’s very exciting. For a first-time telecast I think they’re doing a sensational job. I think over time they’ll figure out which camera angles work best and enhance the experience. But like HD was a huge step forward, I think the future is extremely exciting with this.”
I also had a long talk with Bettman (Cornell Class of ’74) about Thursday night’s big game in Syracuse. He likes the Big Red’s chances.
What, you thought I was going to get through an entire post without mentioning Cornell basketball?
Photo: Newsday/Christopher Pasatieri